Notes on the Canadian Egg Trade

The recent discussion has been about the sale of eggs, prompted by the offer of an egg as a door-prize at an ART clinic in the UK.   At the risk of endlessly prolonging this topic, I wanted to recommend a fascinating article from a Canadian magazine called The Walrus.   It’s called The Human Egg Trade and it is by Allison Motluk. 

One reason it is interesting is that Canada prohibits payment to women for their eggs.   Indeed, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act expressly outlaws the purchase (and sale) of human eggs.  While the Royal Commission that recommended the Act accepted the use of third-party gametes in ART, it declared that payment for eggs was “never acceptable.” 

In theory this means that ART in Canada relies on what are called “altruistic donors” (and here perhaps the term “donor” is appropriate, since the idea is that the woman would not be paid.)   But as the article makes clear, the reality is nothing like what was intended.   Regulations to enable the framework set out in the Act have never been enacted.  Even the people in charge of administering the watchdog agency do not know what the rules really are.   And in the midst of all this, money changes hands in a variety of ways.  

In part it seems to me that this article reflects the impossibility of prohibitions in an era of globalization, particularly for Canada, which sits just north of what is likely the largest essentially unregulated free-market for ART.    While the phrase “fertility tourists” might conjure up European couples travelling thousands of miles to India to hire surrogates, it could just as well refer to Canadians travelling several hundred miles south to buy necessary supplies. 

At the same time, the article documents, in painful detail, the intrusive medical procedures endured by women who would provide their eggs to another.    I hope it will be a good long while before I blithely equate egg and sperm providers.  

It seems wrong-headed to me to allow the use of third-party gametes, which is essentially inviting women to offer their eggs, and then to refuse to pay women for the time, the discomfort/pain, and the risks of very serious complications.   It’s all well and good to say you’ll rely on altruistic donors, but there won’t be enough.  A shadowy underground market is sure to develop, and that will almost assuredly put women in a far worse position.  

Rather than drive the trade underground, which is what Canada seems to have accomplished, it seems to me it would be better to bring it right out in the open, perhaps to regulate it, and to ensure that the women who are willing to sell their eggs can do so as safely and comfortably as possible.

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8 responses to “Notes on the Canadian Egg Trade

  1. Paid unpaid really makes no difference as long as we keep track of who has offspring and who is raising those offspring. Better to make it legal to get paid but make egg and sperm providers go thru the adoption process of their offspring after their offspring is born. All these crazy custody battles about “who is the mother/father” would simply end if everyone just followed that model. Of course I personally also want to see an end to adopters getting called mother fathers or parents on any legal documents EVER like birth certificates. I think making it all legal is a great idea so long as every legal document refers to persons having custody using terms that expose how the person or persons came to have custody either contractually or by virtue of being a progenator with custody of ones own offspring.

    • I know the paid/unpaid makes a big difference to a number of people who see payment as commodification. Indeed, I think it is the wariness of commodification that motivated Canada to go with the unpaid model. It’s true, of course, that keeping track of things is independent of the paid/unpaid question. More on that other places, and still more to come.

      I don’t agree about every legal document exposing how a person became a legally recognized whatever you want to call it. Think of all the times those with legal rights (what are we calling them instead of parents?) need to prove their legal entitlement to enroll a child? If I sign my kid up for soccer, does the soccer coach really get to know whether I adopted or use third-party gametes or whatever? Why is it any of his/her business at all? How about the ICE agents at the border?

      I can understand saying that the children involved have a right to know these things, but I don’t see why everyone else in the world has the same right. It seems to me some legal document that makes clear who holds right vis-a-vis a child without describing the manner in which the rights were obtained might be useful.

  2. Yeah I know what you mean about not everyone needing to know everyones business. I only recently came to the idea that everyone should give up mother father. I’d settle for documents saying “adopted” next to the mother father or parent title on them.

    The people I reunite say even when they grew up knowing, there is alot of pretending going on anyway because the people raising them believe they are parents what difference does it make how they came to be parents. They say they always feel like they are lying by virtue of omission. Also if a document exists that does not saythe means of custody that might be the only document the kid sees.

    My wish of not calling people that adopt parents is a bit of a pipe dream anyway. So I’d concede that gladly if sperm and egg providers had to aknowledge the birth of each offspring individually and then relinquish for adoption to the clinic customer(s)

    • I don’t see why the soccer coach needs to know how I got to be a parent. I can see that anyone registering a child for soccer or school needs to demonstrate that they have the legal right to register that child. So we have to have some official document that shows that. I think it ought to be essentially the same form of document for all people holding the rights, without distinguishing how they got to hold them.

  3. I’m wondering why you or anyone else would not want that information on the certificate? Whats the big deal really? There is no shame in either way of comming by custody, and the best part about having the correct information right there on the certificate is that nobody will ever be misled. If there is a legal document that it silent on the method of custody that might be the only thing some kids are allowed to see. Wouldnt it be best not to have any legal document without the words explicit? Nobody is going to say the kid can’t be enrolled in school or get a passport because of it, if they did….then the person with custody could complain and win right? I guess I don’t see the reason to make it ultra private.

    • I guess I believe in a family’s right to keep a range of information private, not from its own members, but from folks who have no need to know. This means I approach the question the other way around–why should the soccer coach know whether I adopted or used donor gametes? Surely she or he has no need to know that. And it’s actually quite easy for me to believe that once some people know, more people know. So I don’t think this is about ultra-private–I think this is about private vs. public.

      I say this knowing many families who are perfectly open and honest about adoption, say. The one thing that worries me about my proposal is that it might imply that people should keep these things secret–that there should be shame. But on balance I’d leave it to people to figure out who they want to know what, and I’d give them ways of protecting themselves from disclosure to folks who have no real need to know at all.

      I think there are ways of ensuring information is available to the kids at whatever time we agree they should be entitled to recieve it.

  4. Julie, you say “In part it seems to me that this article reflects the impossibility of prohibitions in an era of globalization”. I think that there are two type of laws. Those that try to regulate peoples behaviour and those which primarily express the attitude of the community about right and wrong. Some countries forbid prostitution, well knowing that an underground market will develop. Homicide is outlawed everywhere and not because people believe that laws will bring an end to it. The UK recently banned secret DNA paternity tests. This hasn’t stopped people from doing them, they just mail the samples to another country. Custody battles is a different story. International child abduction has become increasingly difficult to get away with, because more and more countries are starting to respect each others custody laws. With increasing globalization, this may be the way of the future.

    • True enough. What struck me about the article from The Walrus was that it illustrated the costs to driving the egg economy underground. In a similar way, people argue that the criminalization of prostitution make prostitutes far more vulnerable to exploitation. While I’ve seen the argument vis-a-vis prostitution, I hadn’t thought about it vis-a-vis the egg trade.

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